Undermining Democracy: No Child Left Behind’s Impact on Social Studies Education

After polls closed in Britain on June23, 2016, two very important questions became Google’s top searches across the UK. “What is Brexit?” and “What is the EU?” spiked to the top searches in London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Arguably, these questions should have been asked prior to voting, but these searches demonstrate that many people in Britain did not understand what they were voting on, and what the consequences of those votes would entail. The ultimate question we must ask ourselves is how citizens, who control the fate of an powerful and influential country, could show up at the polls ill equipped to vote, even though they had the means to acquire information about the referendum ahead of time. This phenomenon is not unique to Britain, but is shown through other measures in the US, such as voter apathy and low turnout, particularly among young adults.

While I am not trying to suggest that the UK’s Brexit vote is simply the result of poor social studies instruction, the lack of civic engagement prior to voting demonstrates that social studies curricula needs to be redesigned and tailored to prepare students to enter their adult life as citizens able to participate in society. A social studies education should create an active and informed citizenry that can use critical thinking skills in their political and civic involvement. Unfortunately, some troubling trends have made this task significantly more difficult to pursue.

The US No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which was aimed at improving math and English Language Arts (ELA), used high-stakes test scores as a measure of accountability and sanctioned schools that failed to achieve targeted test scores. Reports following the implementation of NCLB have suggested that resources allocated to the teaching of social studies have shrunk due to the stakes associated with poor performance on math and ELA. As a former social studies teacher, I sought to determine the way that No Child Left Behind has impacted resources for social studies education and to identify specific resources that had been subjected to these changes.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 8th grade civics and geography have been stagnant for the last decade, and the US history test has seen only eight points growth in 20 years, indicating that scores have not been growing at a rate that would be indicative of a rigorous social studies education. While the use of achievement scores to demonstrate student learning is not ideal, they should be a cause for alarm in an era that places value on test scores. While NCLB had the goal of closing the achievement gap in ELA and math, this achievement gap in social studies has not been addressed. The schools that have seen the biggest impact on their social studies education are lower-performing schools, because they have had to focus their resources on math and ELA instruction in order to avoid the sanctions put in place by NCLB.

Data on resource allocation shows that time in elementary school classrooms has been redirected from social studies instruction toward literacy for the sake of improving ELA test scores. Many teachers and state directors of assessment acknowledge this change in practice, and some researchers estimate that schools now spend 50% of their instructional time on ELA, 25% on math, and about 12% of their instruction on social studies in elementary school classrooms. Due to the rigid nature of middle school and high school schedules, the impact on time allocation has not been witnessed in the same manner.

The number of assessments required by states has decreased. Some states include social studies testing for accountability purposes, and others simply require social studies testing to inform the state of social studies knowledge, but the number of states with mandated social studies tests has decreased since NCLB was enacted. Now, less than 20 states test social studies, which shows that less than half of the US is annually assessing its progress in social studies.

The US is now transitioning to a new federal education law that grants more autonomy to states, and emphasizes the value of a “well-rounded” education in its text, which is a source of hope for social studies educators. There is potential reclaim the curriculum and redesign it to meet the needs of our students so that they can be better informed citizens. This, in turn, should help the US avoid having its own “Brexit.”


Brown, D. (n.d.). The Importance of Social Studies Education. Retrieved December 5, 2016, from http://oureverydaylife.com/importance-social-studies-education-5135.html

Davis, M. R. (2016). Study: NCLB Leads to Cuts for Some Subjects. Retrieved December 6, 2016, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/04/05/30cep.h25.html

Decarr, K. (2015, April 05`). NAEP Results Show Social Studies Stagnation. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from Decarr, K. (2015, May 4). NAEP Results Show Social Studies Stagnation. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from http://www.educationnews.org/education-policy-and-politics/naep-results-show-social-studies-stagnation/

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Patricia, V. P. (2007). What is measured is treasured: The impact of the no child left behind act on nonassessed subjects. The Clearing House, 80(6), 287-291. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/196840763?accountid=14667

Selyukh, A. (2016, June 24). After Brexit Vote, Britain Asks Google: ‘What Is The EU?’ Retrieved December 6, 2016, fromhttp://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/06/24/480949383/britains-google-searches-for-what-is-the-eu-spike-after-brexit-vote

Zamosky, L. (2008). Social studies: Is it history? District Administration, 44(3), 46-48. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/61978319?accountid=14667

One thought on “Undermining Democracy: No Child Left Behind’s Impact on Social Studies Education”

  1. Great commentary. You asked the question. You explained the problem. You gave insightful observations. Well done!

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